Spray-on sunscreen warning

Man with sunburnt back

Every summer, we hear about people who use sunscreen and get sunburnt. They complain and post images on social media and blame the sunscreen manufacturer. It's in the news again. A legal firm is considered a class action lawsuit against the manufacturer of a popular brand of sunscreen, claiming its packaging is misleading.

Are spray-on sunscreens defective or misleadingly-labelled, or are we not using them properly? It's important to understand what SPF really means in terms of protecting your skin, and how much spray-on sunscreen needs to be applied.

Research has shown that Australians rarely apply enough sunscreen — often as little as half the recommended amount ends up on the skin. People tend to use most (but still not enough) with pump packs that provide a measured amount. They use least with aerosol spray-on products. This could be because when sprayed from a distance, it's hard to know how much has ended up on the skin. Aerosol sunscreens are supposed to feel light, so if an inadequate amount is used, it can be hard to tell. Another potential issue for aerosol sprays is that if they're applied outdoors, the active ingredients might blow away and miss the skin they're supposed to protect.

We often have unrealistic expectations of what it means when a sunscreen has a high sun protection factor (SPF). Theoretically, SPF 30 means it should take 30 times as long to burn as it would without the sunscreen. But this only applies in laboratory testing, where both the amount of UV radiation and the amount applied to the skin are strictly controlled. In daily use the actual SPF is much less, mainly due to inadequate application. This is why it's important to reapply sunscreen. The actual duration of protection is much less than you might think.

We agree that it's very important for sunscreen manufacturers to be held to account, and that the SPF advertised on the packaging must match the SPF when tested. But even with a quality aerosol sunscreen, it is very important that people follow instructions, and both use enough and reapply regularly.

When using an aerosol spray-on sunscreen:

  • Make sure it feels wet on the skin. If you can't feel it immediately after application, you haven't used enough.
  • Don't just spray it from a distance — spread it over the skin with your hand to make sure the entire area is covered.
  • Repeat the application. If you cover the area twice, you come closer to having the recommended amount of sunscreen.
  • Reapply after two hours.
  • Remember that whenever the UV index is greater than 3, you can get sunburnt. In the summer, this can happen relatively early in the morning and late in the afternoon, even on cool or overcast days.

Further Information: Skin Protection